In our country, the mentally ill as a minority group still need to be
better understood and accepted. Although the tide has turned for African
Americans, women and gays, too many people with mental illness are still
subjected to prejudiced and poor treatment. They are often marginalized,
even within the medical patient community. Too many lack love. Too many
"normal" people remain afraid of them, primarily out of ignorance.
The Heart Too Long Suppressed is a courageous, creative and disturbing
memoir of one woman's battles with mental illness. Carol Hebald (also
the author of two short novels and a play) was badly abused as a child:
locked in a closet, even before the age of one, for long periods; the
incest victim of her dying father; repeatedly hit by her sister and her
mother. She was an "unusually beautiful child, but an unusually quiet
one, too." In her family background, it turns out, were several women
with similar problems.
Hebald' s story, which begins with her earliest memories, carries her
almost to the present day. She lost her father, her closest ally
despite events at the end of his life, at the tender age of four.
Although she continued to live with her mother and her sister, not much
love or compassion was lost among them. In the '50s, Hebald was
misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, and later labeled with various other
mentally ill titles. She was hospitalized several times for being
suicidal, and received many shock treatments, along with psychoanalysis
and copious medications. Despite this background, she has been a
successful stage actress, a creative writing professor and a writer. She
was married for a short time. She went to college as an adult, obtained
a MFA and taught creative writing on the college level for thirteen
years. Hebald now lives in New York City, apparently without
medication, continuing her life as a writer.
The book is relatively easy to follow chronologically, but it is
sometimes difficult to follow Hebald's thought patterns. The editors
have not edited out her hallucinatory ideas or her sometimes obscure
reasoning. Also, as Hebald has had so much bad "luck" -- with men, with
friends, with her mother, with her acting career -- this is a very sad
story. As she admits, "I knew that certain injuries had been done to me
from which I never would heal."
She feels she has been mislabeled and misunderstood too many times.
"Why are we so eager to label -- and so distance ourselves from -- states
of being we don't understand?" she asks. In a courageous -- and
premeditated -- act at age 44, she throws all her many medications
overboard while on a cruise with her mother: "Not until those drugs were
out of my system was I able to come fully alive. Alive."
The book is disturbing on many levels, not the least of which are the
terrible times she's had with family, with men and with some therapists.
I often had to put it down as so little joy shone through. The landscape
is bleak, not punctuated with humor or much true human affection.
Nevertheless, Hebald has emerged from the hell of her earlier life into
a somewhat "normal" existence, writing poetry, plays, and fiction.
I recommend this book to learn how a woman with a terribly dysfunctional
beginning can change her life -- how she can triumph over extreme
adversity -- and to see inside a mentally ill person's mind. This would
also be a good textbook for a college psychology course.
But don't read it when you are depressed, when it's raining, when it is
a bleak time of the year. Take this memoir into the sunlight, feel good
about your life, and wish Hebald all the good fortune she can continue
to find or create.